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Art Thieves Bleed Italy’s Heritage

A new sack of Rome is under way. And while today’s vandals do not rape and pillage, they may be more systematic about picking clean Italy’s art treasures.

The country with the highest concentration of art in the world is losing the equivalent of a museum a year, not even counting the objects that disappear most frequently, those dug up and looted from archeological sites.

“There has been a terrifying increase,” says Francesco Sisinni, director general of Italy’s Ministry of Culture. “We have gone from 12,000 objects a year in the early 1980’s to 20,000 in 1988 to 28,000 for 1991.”

With Italy preparing to open all borders with its European Community neighbors in January, many fear that the steady bleeding of its cultural heritage will become a hemorrhage. Less than 20 percent of the country’s art is properly photographed and catalogued — let alone protected — making the recovery of many stolen objects almost impossible. During the art-market boom of the 1980’s, stolen art took second place, next to drugs, in the world’s black market, says Col. Roberto Conforti, head of the special art-theft unit of the Italian police.

Theft is increasing at all levels, from the lone drug addict stealing for his daily fix to highly organized professionals who attack museums and churches with the firepower usually reserved for bank robberies. Stolen works range from famous masterpieces to the silver collection plate of the local church. More than half of the works stolen are antique jewelry, furniture and rare coins, the police say, but a good 5,000 paintings and sculptures also disappear each year.

In Modena, earlier this year, armed bandits overpowered guards and made off with five of the most important pictures in the city’s main gallery, including a Velazquez, an El Greco and a Correggio. Only a few months before, other criminals used similar tactics at the national archeological museum in Palestrina, near Rome, to haul off the cream of its rich collection of Etruscan art. Last year in Padua, gun-toting criminals even stole the bones of the city’s patron saint, St. Anthony, housed in a large silver reliquary elaborately decorated with precious stones.

In two of these three cases, Palestrina and Padua, the police recovered the booty. But those were exceptions. As thefts have gone up, the recovery rate has dropped from 30 percent to 10 percent. And the police are concerned by the emerging ties between art theft and organized crime. When police recently raided the private bunker of a boss of the Camorra, the Neapolitan equivalent of the Mafia, they found the entire place decorated with stolen art objects. (Italian newspapers called it “the Camorra’s Louvre.”)

“There’s a greater interest on the part of the Mafiosi,” says Colonel Conforti. “In the past, paintings and artworks served mainly as status symbols. Now they are also seen as an investment and merchandise to exchange for drugs or arms.”

Last year, Colonel Conforti’s department located 27 pictures in Kingston, Jamaica, that had been stolen from the museum in Bettona, near Perugia. They were apparently being used in a drug deal.

Despite the spectacular thefts at Modena and Palestrina, museums are comparatively secure. “Of the 600 robberies reported in the first half of this year, only three were at state institutions,” says Colonel Conforti. “The rest were at the expense of private collections, churches and small local museums.”

Among the most vulnerable targets for art thieves are Italy’s 100,000 churches. In 1990, the last year for which there are complete statistics, 3,269 objects were stolen from 562 churches. With a decline in the number of priests, there are far fewer people to look after the churches, says Mr. Sisinni of the Cultural Ministry. Many churches are open only a few hours a day and others are boarded up entirely.

In and around Naples, several churches that have remained closed since suffering damage in the 1980 earthquake have been stripped clean. In March of last year, looters spent days carefully removing all the paintings, sculptures and even wall decorations from Santa Maria delle Grazie at Caponapoli, an important Renaissance church. The police happened to catch them as they were making off with their last haul. The church of Santa Maria del Carmine in nearby Aversa was not so lucky: vandals got away with everything, including the main altar and the altarpieces of six side chapels. While it is hard to resell world-class masterpieces like Caravaggio’s “Nativity,” which has not surfaced since it was stolen from the oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo in 1969, thieves have little trouble finding buyers for lesser-known works.

The problem is largely one of priorities. The Italian Government is profligate in many areas but stingy with art. Italy spent almost $7 billion playing host to the World Cup Soccer championship in 1990 and more than $5 billion to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage to America, yet the Ministry of Culture’s annual budget is only about $1 billion. Of that amount, about three-quarters is spent on salaries, leaving only $290 million for restoration and maintenance of monuments. Given the number, size and antiquity of Italy’s monuments, $290 million is a pittance: the project to shore up the crumbling Colosseum alone is estimated at $40 million. (A Rome bank has stepped in to pay for most of the Colosseum repairs, but private sponsorship is rarely available for the grubby, unglamorous daily work needed to maintain Italy’s artistic patrimony.)

One project that has fallen victim to neglect is the long-awaited national catalogue of Italy’s artistic patrimony. The Italian Parliament called for such an archive as early as 1922 but has failed to appropriate the money to implement it.

“People don’t want to spend money on catalogues because they are not flashy,” says Oreste Ferrari, who headed the National Institute of the Catalogue in Rome until he resigned in frustration two years ago.

A catalogue is of critical importance: police recover about 70 percent of the objects for which they have photographs but almost never find undocumented work. Yet the program is stalled hopelessly, bogged down in incompatible computer systems, feuds among art historians and an on-again, off-again flow of money.

It is unfair to say, however, that Italy is doing nothing to combat the problem of art theft. The Ministry of Culture has made sure that all 7,100 state museums are equipped with alarm systems. It has beefed up its special police unit dedicated to recovering stolen art into the largest and most sophisticated in the world, with 120 officers and a computer data base of 200,000 stolen objects. The police have digitized the images of some 80,000 objects so that they can quickly match a found object with the computer inventory of stolen ones.

But both computers and catalogues are of little help in stopping what is probably the hottest market in illegal art: the trade in objects dug up from archeological sites.

“Virtually all antiquities for sale today come from looted sites,” says the curator of antiquities at a major American museum, who insisted on anonymity because he did not want to alienate the museums and dealers he works with. “Almost none of the objects have a provenance that dates back more than a generation — meaning they were almost certainly dug up in the 1970’s or 1980’s and kept in Switzerland for a while before being put onto the market.” The Swiss connection is vital: possession of art is nine-tenths of the law in Switzerland, making it a haven for art of dubious origin.

The main responsibility for the looting, according to Malcolm Bell, a professor of archeology at the University of Virginia and head of a dig in Sicily, lies with the dealers and museums that continue to buy antiquities of unknown or dubious origin.

“The museums may mouth platitudes about not buying looted material, but they continue to buy objects with no provenance,” says Mr. Bell, whose own dig has suffered from repeated looting.

The European Community is far from having ironed out a unified policy toward cultural patrimony. The countries of southern Europe — Italy, Greece, Spain, France and Portugal — want to protect their art against export, while the northern ones (especially Britain, with its important auction houses) favor a much more laissez-faire policy.

“We need to find a middle ground,” says Colonel Conforti. “We hope to achieve legislation that allows both greater circulation of artworks and greater protection.”

 – August 02, 1992

As published in The New York Times

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